Quit Your Job! Jen St. Hilaire of Scarlet City Coffee Roasting

There’s more than one way to start a business. You can straight up just quit your job, and take loans and go for broke — but that’s not something we’re all in a position to do. There are ways to segue into proprietorship, supporting yourself part-time while you grow a business. We talked to our favorite coffee roaster, Jen St. Hilaire, of Scarlet City Coffee Roasting, who is based in California’s East Bay and makes our favorite coffee ever, about how and why she’s doing it.

The Awl: Why is your coffee so insanely delicious? I swear, this is the best coffee I’ve ever had in my entire life. Like I want to drink it all day and night.

Jen St. Hilaire: Because… Resistance is Futile! No, but seriously, I’m glad you like my coffee! And I always appreciate hearing people’s feedback. There are few things that I think contribute to the way my coffees taste. My roast style and personal tastes are the most obvious things. I roast the beans in a medium or Northern Italian style, which highlights the sugars and flavors of origin naturally present in the coffee, because they aren’t overridden by the roast style, as they tend to be in coffees that are dark/overroasted (bitter flavors) or light/underroasted (acidic, bright, sour flavors). I think coffee tastes best when all of those flavors (bright, bitter, sweet) are in balance. My personal taste comes into play primarily in my blend creation. I prefer coffees with flavors of dark chocolate, caramel, brown sugar, maybe a little spice or fruit. So the coffees I select for the components in my blends will usually have one or more of these characteristics which contributes to the blend. For my single origin coffees, my criteria is a little different in that I choose coffees from women-owned/milled/exported farms, regardless of whether they fit my personal preference, but all of them have to be of very high quality.

I try to buy organic when I can, but the way a coffee tastes is always first priority. Both my personal taste and roast style aside, I think what really makes my coffees different from other roasters with similar style & taste is the expertise that I’ve developed over the 16 years in the industry while working for companies like Espresso Vivace and Ecco Caffe. Doing something really well takes practice, even if you initially have a talent and passion for it. There was a study mentioned in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, Outliers, that collected data about musicians at different skill levels and how many hours of practice they’d put in over the years, to determine whether there was such a thing as “innate talent.” Turns out, the study found that musicians who had put in roughly 10,000 hours or more into their field had all reached a level of mastery that the others hadn’t achieved, regardless of how talented they had all been when they started. 10,000 hours correlates to about 10 years’ time… so, scientifically speaking, it’s possible that my coffee simply tastes really good because I’ve put in so many hours of practice. When it all comes down to it though, I do think there’s an unexplainable element of “magic” that happens when someone is doing something they love.

The Awl: You’re in a long transition from being a roaster at other companies, to being a consultant roaster, to being a small business operator, so now you have to handle all those pesky things. Why’d ya do it? And why that choice? It’s nice and safe being an employee, after all.

That’s true, it is nice and safe being an employee, especially when you’re younger, or you’re not able to or interested in taking such big risks with your career and your money. But working for others was also a necessary part of gaining the experience to become a good business owner. I was lucky enough to start off with one of the best educations in specialty coffee roasting that one could get in the mid 90s — as Vivace’s first wholesale manager & head roaster. People traveled from all over the world to our roasteria on Capitol Hill, to see this new-fangled thing called “latte art” and to get a taste of the coffee that was as delicious as it smelled. I learned a lot about roasting and espresso preparation, and specifically, how to tweak my roasts on each of the coffees to contribute just the right flavors to the espresso blends.

I also learned all about the nuts and bolts of running a wholesale roasting business — bean selection & buying, vendor relations, accounting, shipping, systems set up. Later on, when I moved down to the Bay Area, I got to work with long-time Vivace wholesale customer, Andy Barnett, while he was starting Ecco — training him how to roast and consulting with him on his wholesale program, and I learned a lot about the process starting a roasting company from scratch. After Ecco was set up, I roasted there for several years when Andy was away at barista competitions or in Brazil, and then around 2006–07, I began the process of building my own company.

Prior to 2006, I had actually hoped to find full-time work here in California as a coffee roaster at someone else’s company, but for various reasons, that plan never panned out, so I literally *had* to start my own company to be able to make roasting into a career. One of the other reasons I wanted to start my own business is that I wanted to have complete control over what I was doing. Good or bad jobs aside, I’ve always felt a little dissatisfied at not having the authority to make decisions that I knew could have made the product better or the job easier and more efficient. As lucky as I’ve been to have interesting jobs with some autonomy (currently I still work part-time at UC Berkeley managing a zebrafish research facility, I’ve worked on crab & fish processors in Alaska, at Good Vibrations, at Lonely Planet, and various juice companies like Genesis, Dharma Juice & Odwalla), I always wanted to have a career doing something I absolutely, without question, loved and would never grow bored of — and something creative. It’s not without its risks, as you mentioned — but that’s part of why it’s exciting for me: important decisions come up all the time, things that could make or break my business. But I get to own all the successes, along with the failures, and feels really satisfying to have maneuvered what could have been a failure into a success. And that’s the kind of thing that, at the end of a long, long, long, endless, work week, makes my journey totally worth it.

The Awl: How important is the Internet to your business? You have “pickup available” once a week from your funny shared warehouse down in West Oakland, near where the military hogs the waterfront — and then the rest is wholesale deliveries and individual online orders. How much of your life is about distribution?

The Internet is totally key for growing my business right now, since I don’t have a retail storefront yet, and direct sales are where I want to focus, since the profit margins are a lot bigger and I really like being able to give personalized customer service to people who choose to buy coffee from my company. I only have two small wholesale accounts right now, and they’re pretty close to where I live, so they’re not too much for me to handle yet. But there’s another grocery store account in the works, with three more stores, so I’m in the process of figuring out how that’ll fit into my schedule without too much trouble. My life might become all about distribution in a hot second!

The Awl: What are your biggest challenges? Is it bricks and mortar-related — like, storage and inventory? Or distribution? Or getting bigger wholesale clients, or more individual orders — or getting enough roasting time?

The biggest challenge right now is just trying to keep my business afloat, and that includes all the areas you mentioned. The economy is pretty bad right now, and with the “c” coffee market prices at an all-time high, I’ve been paying almost 200% more per pound for green beans than I was just a year ago. Many of the roasters in the Bay Area with a similar product (fresh, medium roast, high quality coffees) have raised their prices over the last year to $1–2 per pound more than what I’m currently selling my beans for. I’ve raised my prices a little bit, but because I’m still such a new company, I can’t risk raising them too high or I risk alienating first-time customers who may not want to take a chance paying a little more for beans from a company that they’ve never heard of or been able to taste in a shop. Brokers aren’t keeping a whole lot of inventory on hand right now because the market is so volatile, so it makes it a little bit trickier for me to get the beans I want, and I have to stay several steps ahead with my green bean purchases to make sure I’ve got enough in stock.

Then there’s the bricks and mortar challenge of being able to pay the rent on the warehouse every month, which is about 90% of my overhead. I’m currently still supplementing a lot of my expenses with my paycheck from UCB, but hopefully, that’ll change at some point.

The Awl: What do you wish you’d known before you struck out on your own?

Well.. for one, I wish I would have known that when shopping for loans, the banks don’t really care about anything in your business plan besides your executive summary, your investments and your financial projections. Though I’m really glad I spent the time to research and fill out the sections like “SWOT Analysis,” I probably could have shaved a lot of time off writing my plan if I’d been a little less meticulous about everything in it.